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INTERNET: Google, Apple and More Flock to China Internet Pow-wow

Bottom line: Attendance of Google's CEO at China's premier Internet event marks a continuation of its slow return to China, while appearances by top Apple, Qualcomm and Microsoft executives are more expected.

Western tech execs hobnob at Internet conference

As we head into the new week, the headlines are filled with the latest words of wisdom on the future of the Internet from some of China's leading company chiefs, who were all in the scenic city of Wuzhen for a major conference that kicked off over the weekend. But equally interesting were the guest list of foreign big-wigs in attendance,  which included top executives from Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL), Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT), Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO) and Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM), among others.

This is the third year for the show, which I previously pooh-poohed as a show of pageantry without too much substance. But it does appear to be gaining a bit of traction over time, and I suppose I should grudgingly admit that perhaps China should have a greater say in the development of the Internet and that these major players are at least partly right to be attending in high-profile roles. After all, China is easily the world's largest Internet market with more than 700 million users.

The fact of the matter is that each of these companies that sent a high executive has good reason for doing so, since all are strongly present in China in one form or anther or would like to be. From my perspective, the most significant attendee, though certainly not a surprise, was Google's CEO Sundar Pichai, who was making his first appearance at the event. (English article)

Pichai apparently didn't deliver any major speech, but instead attended a panel at the event. But the fact that he was invited to be part of any activities at all could be considered a breakthrough, albeit a small one. Google notoriously shuttered its China search business in 2010 after an angry clash with Beijing over censorship. But it has been quietly trying to tiptoe back in the last three or four years to take advantage of the huge presence of its Android mobile operating system in the market.

I've chronicled many of the small steps that show Google is trying to return, the most recent being a very high-profile match in which the company's AlphaGo computer defeated the world's reining champion, a Chinese, at the ancient board game of Go. Pichai's participation in a panel marks the first official taking of the stage for a Google executive at a formal Chinese event, and brings huge face to this event that China is trying to build up as a global pow-wow.

Among the other notable executives, the biggest was Apple CEO Tim Cook, who was in China for the second time in two months to give a keynote speech at the event's opening on Sunday. Cook has been a big China fan over the last three years, making at least two visits to the country per year. He finally got some rewards for all his travel when Apple's China market share stabilized in the third quarter after two years of declining sales. (English article

No Surprises from China Old Timers

Among the other players, Microsoft sent a senior vice president, as did Qualcomm, though neither of those is a huge surprise. Microsoft has been a China bull for quite a while, though it did suffer a recent setback when its Skype service was officially removed from Apple's China app store. But Microsoft has shown it's quite willing to play by China's rules, and it's really no surprise it was invited to the party and chose to attend.

The same is true for Qualcomm, which counts China as one of its most important markets, even though it's taken a bit of a beating there lately. The company was fined a record amount of nearly $1 billion a couple of years ago for anti-competitive practices, and is currently trying to work its way back into Beijing's good graces. It also sent an senior vice president to the event, in this case to pick up an award for 5G telecommunications -- an area where China hopes to be a world leader.

I have to admit I don't know much about Cisco, though obviously China should have big potential for them, even as the company competes against hometown strongman Huawei. The fact that CEO Chuck Robbins attended signals that perhaps the company will turn up its China press soon.

The most notable absences at the event were for foreign social media giants, with Facebook (Nasdaq: FB) the most notable. No one was really expecting other names like Twitter and Snap to be present, but Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been trying for years to ingratiate himself with Beijing, and has spoken at other high-profile events. His attendance in Wuzhen would have been another signal that Facebook was moving closer to its goal, though apparently that end remains elusive for now.

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